In the not too distant past, vile bottles of Chianti wrapped in straw baskets were Americans’ only exposure to Italian wine. Chianti empties were highly prized by would-be Italian restaurants as decorative candleholders or adornment hung amidst the plastic grapes and vines draping the ceilings.
Americans love Italian cuisine, but our love affair with Italian wines beyond Chianti is a relatively new phenomenon fueled by celebrity chefs and cookbook authors like Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and the late Marcella Hazan, the Julia Child of Italian cooking.
These along with others have elevated Italian cuisine to a new level, opening our eyes to the fact that eating Italian doesn’t always mean pizza, lasagna and spaghetti with meatballs. With this knowledge comes the realization that Chianti is not always the wine answer for Italian cuisine. Such varied fare calls for varied Italian wine choices.
Italy has one of the oldest winemaking cultures in the world. The famous Marchesi de Frescobaldi family started making wine in the 1300s. The noble Frescobaldi were then and now large landholders. Marchesi is the Italian plural of marquis, hence as the title of marquis passed from generation to generation it took the plural form, marchesi, now incorporated into the family name.
The Frescobaldi were cloth merchants and bankers, the venture capitalists of the 13th century. The family-owned banks in London served both Edward I and Edward II of England. Coming under suspicion during the reign of Edward II, the family had to abandon English soil.
The Frescobaldi have long been patrons of the arts, supporting the likes of Donatello and Brunelleschi, and that patronage continues with current artists. Over the years their equally impressive wine clientele included Michelangelo, who is said to have traded paintings for wine and Henry VIII, who likely would have traded wives for wine, given the opportunity.
In more than 700 years of this family’s history, two things have remained constant: support of the arts and commitment to making extraordinary wines in a range of prices and styles.
The family was among the first to introduce the traditional French varieties of merlot, cabernet and chardonnay to their native Tuscany in the mid-1800s. They produced a Super Tuscan blend before nomenclature was invented for Italian red wines made predominantly from traditional Bordeaux varietals.
In 1995 Frescobaldi partnered with one of America’s royal wine families headed by Robert Mondavi in a joint venture that produced Luce della Vite and a second label, Lucente. Robert Mondavi was sold in 2004 in a hostile corporate takeover to Constellation Brands. Frescobaldi later took complete control of what had been the Mondavi Frescobaldi venture.
At the pricey end of the Frescobaldi spectrum is its Super Tuscan Ornellaia priced at more than $200 per bottle but they also produce more reasonably priced wines like the two listed below tried over the holidays. These wines are distributed in Alabama. The Brunello is available by special order. The Pomino might have to be secured from an online source. Check your favorite wine merchant for availability.
Pomino Bianco 2012. $13 range. Predominantly chardonnay crafted in a New World-style. Fermented and aged in a combination of stainless steel and small oak barrels. Some malolactic fermentation gives it a smooth mouthfeel. Not overtly buttery or woody. It is balanced lacking the austerity of naked chardonnay but not so rich as to overpower food. Floral nose. Crisp green apple on the palate. Smooth finish. Pairs well with shrimp scampi.
Castel Giocondo Brunello di Montalcino 2008. $60 range. From 100 percent sangiovese. After fermentation this wine rests for a period of five years spending a minimum of at least two of those five years in oak and four months in bottle before release. Medium-weight red wine. Not a blockbuster cab nor as delicate as a pinot. Plumy, spicy, approachable wine. Delicate enough for grilled veal chops but sufficient structure to hold up to hearty stews.
Email Pat Kettles at firstname.lastname@example.org